PASO ROBLES — The North County Technical Rescue Team is always ready to get civilians out of harm’s way. Comprised of 14 members — seven from the Paso Robles Emergency Service Department and seven from the Atascadero Fire Department — the team was recently involved in a high-profile swiftwater rescue after a storm that occurred Thursday, March 22 caused the Salinas River to swell up sweep away several transients who were camping along the banks.
“The team was formed in 2004 after the Earthquake of 2003,” said Battalion Chief Randy Harris with the Paso Robles Emergency Service Department. “We do joint training together about six to eight times a year. It’s not only for swiftwater, but also confined space, trench rescue, high angle rescue, shoring, urban search, and rescue all the different disciplines.”
Fire Chief Casey Bryson with the Atascadero Fire Department said that the rescue classes are all-encompassing.
“It can be a building collapse after an earthquake, might involve shoring, tunneling, and digging,” he said. “All those technical type rescues that the average firefighter has training in, but they don’t actively train each month on those types of specialized rescues.”
Emergency responder received a report of a person in distress in the Salinas River just North of the Niblick Bridge at approximately 8:45 a.m on March 22. Firefighters arrived at the scene within four minutes to discover a male victim with water up to his shoulders and neck and his dog clinging to a tree. The gentleman broke free from the tree. Members of the Technical Rescue Team were already present and the Paso Robles members were the first in the water. Firefighters were able to throw the subject a personal flotation device until a member of the team could swim across the river to rescue him. The victim was assisted back to shore on the east bank with the help of rescue swimmers, but unfortunately, the dog didn’t make it with the current, pulling him under.
Simultaneously, multiple additional 911 calls came in reporting people in distress in the river. Atascadero team members arrived right as the first rescue was happening and were sent to the second rescue.
“It was my first active swiftwater call,” said Brandon Roberts, Atascadero Fire Engineer, and Paramedic. “Once we got on scene, we started planning on how we were going to do it. It was determined by the rescue supervisor that a swimmer would be the best way to do it, so we went ahead with that plan. The victim was located halfway between banks. From there, we put the swimmer in and we had a backup plan in case he couldn’t get to him. We had some personnel down scene in case something went wrong.”
A California Highway Patrol helicopter was also utilized with two Paso Robles rescuers, completing six hoist rescues. In addition, TRT rescue swimmers entered the water and performed four more rescues. One man near the 13th Street bridge had to be pulled out of his tent.
Over the course of four hours, emergency personnel conducted 10 river rescues. Two patients were transported to the hospital for further evaluation.
“The rescues ran smoothly,” Bryson said. “Operations with the helicopters and the swimmers went all really well and were very safe and efficient and it all worked.”
People in the river bed were warned ahead of time. Harris said that there were multiple encampments from the area near JC Penny all the way up to the county line. Some of the encampments were in higher areas on the banks and some were very low in the sandy channels. On Tuesday, Harris and the fire chief made contact with several camps at eight different sites.
“We tried to get the word out that the Salinas River rises very quickly and that the impending storm had significant rainfall projected,” he said. “In addition to that, we contacted Paso Cares who does feedings over on 24th and Riverside and made contact both on the night of the 20th and the 21st at their feedings to try to get the word out that it was time to evacuate the riverbed and perhaps take Paso Cares up on their shelter services.”
Harris said that just four to six inches of water has enough hydraulic force to sweep a person away.
“The water is not only cold, it has some biological hazards in it and of course, the force of water and debris in the strainers down there with all the trees is pretty hazardous,” he said. “It can sweep you away pretty fast.”
CHP Helicopter H70 has a FLIR (Forward looking Infrared radar) which was used to search the riverbed area to find anyone else that might have been stranded or not recovered.
“We hope everyone was found, that’s for sure,” Harris said.
A total of three fire engines, one heavy rescue, two Chief Officers, Police Department and Public Works Department from Paso Robles responded.
Under the City’s automatic and mutual aid agreements, four fire engines, a heavy rescue and two Battalion Chief’s from Cal Fire, one fire engine and one heavy rescue from Atascadero City Fire, one fire engine from Templeton Fire, one fire engine from San Miguel Fire, two rescue team members from San Luis City Fire, one rescue team member from Cambria Fire, one North County Technical Rescue Team, one San Luis Obispo County Technical Rescue Team, three ambulances from San Luis Ambulance and one CHP helicopter immediately responded to assist.
“I think overall, the captain and the rescuer that went in perform very well,” Roberts said. “I think as a group, as a unit Paso Robles, us, Templeton, and Cal Fire unit on scene performed as one unit, one team. We weren’t a part of different departments, we were all one large department performing exactly what we were trained to do. Overall, it was very smooth and successful. The victim was rescued quickly and effectively and was able to get medical care the second he stepped out of the water. It was a very successful and well-coordinated rescue effort.”